Front-line reporting in Syria can be as perplexing as the war

While Todenhöfer has been mauled at home, he contin­ues to enjoy positive media cov­erage in Russia, which also sub­scribes to theory US actively supports ISIS and other jihadists.

Jürgen Todenhöfer (R) interviewing an Egyptian ISIS fighter.

2016/10/16 Issue: 77 Page: 21

The Arab Weekly
Harvey Morris

London - A German journalist who became the first West­erner to report from ter­ritory held by the Islamic State (ISIS) has become embroiled in a controversy with his country’s leading news magazine that questioned the authenticity of his latest front-line reporting.

In late September, Jürgen Toden­höfer had an interview published in a Cologne newspaper that was said to be with a senior commander of the formerly al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, conducted in no-man’s-land near the battle-torn Syr­ian city of Aleppo.

Under the headline The Ameri­cans are on our side, the masked commander, identified as Abu al-Ezz, claimed that a number of countries, including the United States and Israel, were actively sup­porting his jihadist movement in its war against the Syrian regime.

Jabhat al-Nusra, which changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, or Conquest of Syria Front) in July when it announced it was splitting from al-Qaeda, has been excluded from internationally sponsored peace talks because of its jihadist links.

The interview reinforced a per­ception, widely shared in some cir­cles, that the West is supporting the most reactionary elements battling Syrian President Bashar Assad’s Moscow-backed regime.

It also underlined the near im­possibility of receiving unbiased ac­counts from any side in Syria’s com­plex civil war, largely inaccessible to outsiders, in which propaganda regularly trumps straight news.

The day after the videoed inter­view was published, JFS denied that any such encounter had taken place, hinting that the “fake” com­mander was linked to the regime.

The German news magazine Der Spiegel followed with a foren­sic study of the interview, chal­lenging the identity of the alleged commander and even the location where the two men met.

The interview “strangely con­firmed the war propaganda being propagated by the Assad regime — that America is indirectly support­ing al-Qaeda and that the rebels are opposed to aid deliveries to civil­ians”, Der Spiegel wrote.

Todenhöfer gave the plausible response that the jihadist group could be expected to deny an inter­view that might have revealed more than it intended. “The fact that my critics choose to believe the politi­cal leadership of a terrorist organi­sation more than me is messed up!” he wrote on his Facebook page.

“It was clear from very beginning that Jabhat al-Nusra would deny the interview,” he added.

He also contrasted his role as a front-line reporter with that of his desk-bound detractors. “Some things cannot be researched in front of a computer but require moving one’s butt under great risk into the war zones of this world,” he wrote.

Rebel-linked groups joined in the attempted debunking of Toden­höfer, pointing out his alleged sym­pathy for the Damascus regime. The German conducted an inter­view with Assad in 2012 that critics charged gave a propaganda plat­form to the Syrian leader.

Todenhöfer had previously at­tacked Western media coverage of the Syrian war as hostile to As­sad and too sympathetic to his en­emies.

Der Spiegel had a debate in July 2012 at which its Syria correspond­ent, Christoph Reuter, challenged Todenhöfer’s view that Assad was at that time interested in compro­mise. Reuter was the author of the latest article that set out to debunk Todenhöfer’s JFS interview, an indication that the antipathy be­tween the magazine and the for­mer right-wing German politician-turned-journalist is long-standing.

Der Speigel was also critical of Todenhöfer’s 2014 visit behind ISIS lines and a subsequent book that topped its own bestseller list. “Those who go there… are at the mercy of their hosts and are only permitted to ask subservient ques­tions,” the magazine wrote.

While Todenhöfer has been mauled at home and undermined by a variety of voices among the anti-Assad opposition, he contin­ues to enjoy positive media cov­erage in Russia, which also sub­scribes to the theory the United States actively supports ISIS and other jihadists.

The Kremlin-backed Sputnik News carried Todenhöfer’s lengthy defence of what it called his “explo­sive interview”.

“Speaking to Sputnik Deutschland about the now-famous interview, Todenhöfer explained that he never had any illusions that his journalistic effort, and its shocking revelations about the extent of Western support for Islamist terrorists, would cause a strong reaction ‘both from terrorists and from those who support main­stream Western policy in the Middle East’,” Sputnik News wrote.

As with so much of the infor­mation coming out of Syria, the Todenhöfer interview — authen­tic or not — appears to have added more heat than light to the debate over what can be done to salvage that benighted country.

Harvey Morris has worked in the Middle East, including Iran and Lebanon, for many years and written several books on the region, including No Friends but the Mountains published in 1993.

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